Day 5 – Mt. Herzl & Yad Vashem

Our fifth day in Israel, as I have previously mentioned, was spent at Mt. Herzl, in Yad Vashem, the new holocaust museum, and Israel’s national cemetery. We started the day, after breakfast of course, with a group activity where we shared our personal connections with the holocaust. Hearing the family stories of all these people who had quickly become my friends drove home how closely we were all related to the holocaust.

After packing up all of our belongs we loaded ourselves into the bus and headed out through the newer side of Jerusalem to Yad Vashem. Yet again the contrast to the day before, when the streets were devoid of traffic because of shabbat, was striking. Our hotel was not far from the museum, and the traffic was not bad, so we arrived before very long. We disembarked and gathered near the entrance to the museum. The courtyard where we waited overlooked a lush valley, but I could not concentrate on the view; I was too filled with trepidation about the journey before me.

Our tour guide, whom Shimi had been on a tour with before, was supposed to be excellent. He had completed his doctorate in history with a several month stay at Auschwitz before starting to give tours. English was his third language, with French being his first and Hebrew his second. That, combined with his English coming from his Welsh father, gave him the most interesting accent I’ve ever heard. Our appointed time arrived, we put on headsets and started our journey into the main exhibit of Yad Vashem.

The exhibit was built recently, completed in 2005, and attempts to show the stories of the Jews involved in the holocaust, the perpetrators of the holocaust, and the gentiles who risked their lives to protect Jews in Nazi Germany. When entering the museum you first look down a long open hallway, bracketed by two flat stone walls, which almost meet thirty feet above your head. Instead of them meeting, however, there’s a skylight that runs the length of the two hundred yard long structure. The path through the museum winds back and forth, crossing over the main hallway. As I’m sure the designers intended, the light streaming in from above serves as a distinct contrast to the dark and depressing exhibits on either side.

The individual exhibits start in the prewar era, and continue to the war’s conclusion. At the very end of the museum is the Hall of Names, a round room with thirty foot high bookshelves surrounding the exterior walls. Here, our guide explained, were all the names, along with as much information as had been gathered, of every known victim of the holocaust. More striking, to me at least, were the empty spaces along the wall where the museum had reserved space for the as yet unknown victims.

After leaving the Hall of Names we exited the main exhibit of the museum. As we walked out of the hallway the two sides of the building, previously leaning over us, spread to the sides to reveal a view over a valley in the suburbs of Jerusalem. Probably primarily because of the context, it was one of the most beautiful sights of the trip. We were all silent after leaving; I think we all needed to do some processing of what we had just seen. Before long though we set out walking across the grounds to the Children’s Memorial. This was small and simple, a handful of candles in a dark, mirrored room, and was all the more beautiful and powerful for it’s simplicity. It was the most moving, and upsetting, exhibit of the day.

We left the Children’s Memorial, trying to regroup, got on the bus, and headed to a nearby shopping center for lunch. I grabbed some felafel, the old standard, and sat alone, trying to process the day. Soon, we got back on the bus and headed back to Mt. Herzel.

Tree at Mt. Herzl

We walked up to the summit to the tomb of Herzl. Understand that Mt. Herzl would only be called a mountain in Israel, it was really just a glorified hill. Near the summit we sat and Shimi talked about Herzl’s life and his role in the foundation of the state of Israel. Then we paid our respects at the tomb, a simple rectangle standing three feet high and caved out of black marble. It’s only decoration was Herzl’s name, carved in relief on one end and painted gold. On top of the tomb lay a scattering of stones; in Israel it is customary to lay a stone on top of a tomb to pay respects.

Sunset in Helkat Gedolei Ha'Uma

Leaving the tomb we walked over to the National Civil Cemetery, which contained those citizens who sacrificed their lives for the state and it’s leaders. Starting in the leader’s section, Shimi gave us a brief overview of the public figures buried here. Like Herzl’s tomb almost all of the tombs were plain rectangles, set in pairs with the leaders resting beside their spouses. The only difference was Rabin’s tomb, which consisted of two flowing shapes. We stopped here for an introduction to Rabin, that Shimi promised would be expanded upon tomorrow, when we visited Rabin’s Square.

Victims of Acts of Terror Memorial

As we left the leaders and entered the Victims of Acts of Terror Memorial the sun started to set, painting the sky, which had dull and overcast all day, with a brush of fiery reds and oranges. While the last few hours had been a welcome reprieve from the depressing mood of Yad Vashem, it ended with the memorial. The memorial is a square with two sides bordered by high walls. The other two sides look out onto the valley. Upon these walls the names of every victim of terrorism in Israel is carved, grouped by decade. We stood by the section of wall for the 2000s, and Shimi told of the names he knew personally on the wall, and some of their stories. Then he asked those soldiers who knew someone on the wall to raise their hands; they all did.

Graves in the National Military Cemetery

In the fading light we walked though the military cemetery. One thing I noticed immediately, and had been true about the entirety of Mt. Herzl, was that it was much more lush than Arlington, the only other national cemetery I know. While Arlington had a very simple beauty, grey headstones on rolling hills covered only in well cropped grass, the Israeli National Military Cemetery was nestled on the side of a mountain, with each grave containing a small planting of ivy and each area bordered with tall trees that reached over the graves. I felt that it gave the cemetery a more intimate and personal ambiance. The graves were organized simply by date of death, with no separation for rank, age, or unit. It was not uncommon to see soldiers who had died at sixteen and seventeen. Among the graves were two sections where we stopped to see the graves of unknown soldiers, and soldiers who were missing in action. The most moving monument was a tribute to a submarine which went missing with all hands.

Missing Submariner Memorial

Then we came to the section of the cemetery which contained the newest graves. We stopped at one section, and Shimi told us the story of two of his commanding officers in the special forces, officers who died on missions he was on. The story was so personal, so touching, so depressing, and told so well, that I think we were all touched. Then we walked over to even newer graves, where one of the soldier’s neighbors was buried. We gathered around the grave and listened to his story, and a letter written to him by his younger sister after his death. Our last stop was at the grave of Max Steinberg, an American who lost his life while serving in the Lone Soldier program, a program which allows jews with citizenship in other countries to serve in the Israeli armed forces. When he was killed his parents came to Israel for what they thought would be a small ceremony, they knew no one in Israel, at Max’s graveside but instead found Mt. Herzl filled with people. Thousands, most of whom didn’t know Max, came to celebrate the sacrifice he made for the country.

Grave of Max Steinberg

Seeing these graves and hearing these stories brought the Israeli struggle into a more personal light for me, and I imagine a lot of us. After leaving Mt. Herzl we got on the bus and headed north, to Netanya, where we would spend the night before heading into Tel Aviv. We got stuck in traffic, and our two hour drive turned into a four hour crawl. We didn’t get in until after nine, got some lukewarm dinner, and then had a reflection activity. Needless to say everyone was exhausted, physically and emotionally, so the activity didn’t receive a lot of participation. As soon as it was over I collapsed into sleep.

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Day 4 – Shabbat

Our fourth full day in Israel fell on Shabbat. I think we really lucked out by having Shabbat fall in the middle of our trip, it gave all of us a day to recharge and recover from the first half of the trip, not to mention the jet lag we were all suffering from to various extents. The first required activity was not until ten thirty Saturday morning, although we had to get up slightly earlier to get breakfast, so stayed up a bit later than usual. I think some people stayed up until the early morning, but I was not one of them.

I was still up by eight, and spent a long time grazing at breakfast and enjoying the terrible coffee with the few other early risers. Our first activity ended up being an icebreaker type affair where we shared how strongly we identified with various parts of a Jewish identity, for example how strongly we felt that we should marry someone Jewish. This wasn’t the most popular activity we did, to say the least, and I think we were all glad when it was finally finished.

From the hotel we went on a walking tour of the newer parts of the city of Jerusalem. While we had walked through many of these areas the night before, being out in the day, crossing deserted streets, really made the strangeness of the city keeping the sabbath hit home. To not see more than one or two cars on the road, and all the shops closed in the middle of the day was wild. It was more than wild. It was downright eerie.

We walked past a giant movie complex, they look exactly the same as back home, and then down to a plaza outside of the Supreme Court building. The Supreme Court and other government buildings were built with a lot of space between them, and away from Old Jerusalem, in order to protect them from the rocket attacks by the Palestinians. Yet another reminder of Israel’s history of being under siege.

After getting a history lesson on the supreme court, as well as the development of the government, we walked over to the the Knesset, Israel’s parliament building. Here we talked about the current political climate in Israel, which included some discussions in Hebrew between the soldiers (or arguments, I wasn’t able to tell). We also saw a giant sculpture of a candelabra, complete with many scenes from Jewish history, both biblical and modern.

We took our pictures, then went to find a bathroom. The entire trip could be broken down into travels between toilets. We ended up in a park where we got some active yoga (I did not risk death by trying this) and a game of ultimate frisbee going. I thought that having some experience with touch football would prep me for ultimate; little did I know we had almost two teams worth of people who played competitively. We did our best to split the skilled players up evenly, however it was my team that ended up getting shut out. Despite getting stopped I had a lot of fun; we all did. I also discovered that ultimate is much more demanding on the cardiovascular system than football, with none of that pesky downtime between plays. Sadly it started drizzling after a half hour or so and we packed up to go back to the hotel.

Back at the hotel we closed Shabbat with song and prayer, then went inside for dinner. After dinner we had an activity cooked up by the soldiers, the Israeli version of hot potato which was nothing at all like any hot potato I’d ever seen. We passed a package wrapped in layer upon layer of newspaper around in a circle and whenever the music stopped we would unwrap a layer.. On each layer was a dare we had to perform, which ran the gamut from a dance off (our resident break dancer won this) to a clothes swap. It was a great time.

To end the night we had our free night. On every trip the organizers try to plan a night out in one of the cities. Unfortunately the only night that they could arrange was the night before we went to the holocaust museum, the only night we were not allowed to drink even after all activities for the day had finished. Still, we were able to get dinner and go to some shops in Jerusalem, so it wasn’t a total loss. I got a lox and bagel, which wasn’t nearly as good as the ones I get at home, before wandering around the shops. Like the old city most of the shops were filled with tacky tourist crap, and those that weren’t were far out of everyone’s price range. I saw a choir singing christmas carols in Chinese; talk about a strange sight. We stayed out until ten thirty before going back to the hotel and to bed.

Day 3 – Old Jerusalem

So I’ll admit it, my plan was ambitious, and ultimately an overreach. The trip itinerary was jammed packed, and the only way to get enough sleep was to not socialize. If you decide to socialize, which I did, there was zero time to maintain a blog. However now, up at three in the morning while attempting to adjust to the time change, I’ve got the time to relive our travels and set them down here.

The third day was my first getting a full night’s sleep, so full I slept through my alarm and almost missed breakfast. Luckily I was able to throw on some clothes and get ready without missing much. Soon after breakfast we filed onto the bus for one of our shortest trips. We closed the blinds of the bus as we left the hotel parking lot and Dvora and Arielle, our group leaders, handed out our official Taglit shirts. Under orders we fashioned these as blindfolds, to varying degrees of success, so we could have a proper first look at the city.

Before long the bus stopped and we slowly walked out. I was towards the front of the bus and so was one of the first to be lead out by one of the group leaders, or possibly Ido, I couldn’t tell. Then I was left alone, which I have to the admit is a very isolating experience. After a few minutes, and plenty of shuffling, we grasped hands with the two people on either side of us and walked to where we would see the city for the first time. We ended up leaning against a low wall, but still without any ideas about where we were. Finally Shimi told us to take off the blindfolds and greet the city.

Group overlooking Jerusalem

As much as trying to walk blind was frustrating and getting all of us in the right spot took time, I wouldn’t have wanted to see the city for the first time any other way. Below us the city of Jerusalem spread across several hills. Towards the center of our view, and immediately catching my eye, was the golden dome of the Temple Mount After taking in the view for a few minutes Shimi explained that we were standing on the very spot where when the Jews were last exiled from the city they stood and swore to return. It was in that moment when I really appreciated the way we approached site. Like a microcosm of the trip we started out alone, then came together, taking comfort from one another’s touch, and finally experienced the wonder of Jerusalem as a connected group.

Zion Gate

After spending several minutes appreciating the wonder of the city we reboarded the bus and headed to the gates of the old city. I could not keep my eyes off of the city as we approached, the magic held me captive. We got off the bus and went into the city through the Zion Gate. It was such a juxtaposition when a car came through the gate, barely making the turn, as I was trying to get a picture. The walls around the Zion Gate were pockmarked with bullet holes from the fighting in the War of 68. Even hundreds of years after they were built the walls of Old Jerusalem still see blood spilt on them.

Random Balcony

Walking through the old city was an experience in over-stimulation. Every few paces an alley or courtyard opened up, all in the standard pinkish limestone. The uniform color of the buildings simply make any color pop out. I could have wandered the streets all day simply exploring.

Roman Market

Unfortunately, or fortunately depending on your perspective, we run a tight schedule and were soon off to the ruins of the Roman market. Jerusalem is a city of layers, each civilization seemed to build on those that came before. Shimi spoke about the layout of the Roman city, and how every effort was made to erase the religious significance during the first Roman occupation.

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Next we went to an open square overlooked by the Hurva Synagogue, which had been recently been rebuilt for the third time. While Shimi was talking I have to admit to being at least partially distracted by a bird call filling the square. What can I say, it runs in the family; at least I wasn’t driving while trying to bird as my grandfather was prone to do. Luckily my obsession with audio books prepared me to listen to the lecture while searching out the bird; a search that eventually proved futile. After our history lesson we were released on the area. I zeroed in on some decadent looking donuts, along with a half dozen of us, set up on some tables along the main way. I may have covered the back of my camera with powdered sugar, but it was worth the trouble. We did some shopping, but most of what we saw screamed tourist to me so I bought a bare minimum, all the while regretting the missed opportunities in Tzfat’s artist’s alley.

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After learning about the city in its Roman guise we walked up to the roofs of the old city. In front of us we could see the Dome of the Rock, and behind us was the Holy Sepluka. We talked about the formation of the city and it’s division into quarters. While we were talking the bells from the Christian quarter started tolling. I wandered towards the back of the group to take a picture of the Holy Sepluka, but couldn’t find an angle without barbed wire in the picture. It was quite a statement to me that the three holiest sites in the world, at least for the Abrahamic religions, have to be divided like a war zone. Before releasing us Shimi showed us the third incarnation of one of the most famous synagogues in the city. It was a very recent construction, only ten or fifteen years ago it was only represented by an arch.

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Finally we were on to the main attraction, the Wailing Wall. We got our first look from an overlook, but before we were able to appreciate the wall we were sidetracked by a proposal taking place in front of us. I was towards the back of the group so I didn’t see the event, but based on the crowd of suddenly cheering, dancing, and signing people I can only assume the answer was yes. Within seconds a mob of girls, presumably friends of the bride to be, ran out of a nearby alley and caught everyone up in an infectious display of singing and dancing. The spontaneity and joy of the moment made it one of my favorite on the entire trip.

We left the happy couple to share the moment with their friends and family and started towards the wall. After passing through security we took a moment to appreciate the wall from a distance, wrote notes to put in the wall, and set a meeting time. Then we went to the wall. The wall is segregated, with different sides for the men and women. To show proper respect those of us without hats, myself included, put on yamakas before entering the area next to the wall.

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Whether or not you’re religious, I’m certainly not, the Wailing Wall emanates power. Standing beneath it, looking up at two thousand years of history, is a humbling experience. The stones were cool to the touch, and worn smooth by the touch of untold millions. When you learn the history of the religious significance of the wall, at one point Jews secretly prayed in an alley that ran alongside the wall, the weight seems even greater. I think most of us placed a note in the wall, and stood at the wall, either in prayer or quiet reflection.

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As we prepared to leave the wall there was one more obligatory task: the group photo. I handed my camera off to another tourist and the guys gathered around (remember the men and women are segregated at the wall). Before a photo could be snapped this old man, dressed in a black hat and long black coat, and sporting a very impressive beard, ran into the picture. He stood in front of me, saying that the picture wouldn’t be authentic without him. We were all laughing as the picture was taken.

While we were standing around under the wall we had one more spontaneous experience, and yet another as we were leaving. At the wall we saw a boy getting bar mitzvahed, and after asking around we discovered that anyone can come to the wall to get bar mitzvahed, no reservation required. Then, while leaving, we saw a very young boy getting his upsherin, or first haircut in a small plaza overlooking the wall.

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Leaving the Wailing Wall we headed to the shuk, an open air market where the city was doing it’s last minute shopping before Shabbat started. One of the market goers actually complained that we, the birthright group, were going to the shuk right before Shabbat since we would only get in the way. A group of us went into a side alley and got falafel, somehow my first of the trip. As always we had our trusty guard Ido there to help translate. While the falafel was delicious, it was made better by the chaos of the market surrounding us. After finishing it I spent some time wandering the shuk, simply taking in the sights and sounds of the place. It fulfilled my every expectation, and then some, of what an open air market should really be like. The people were jammed packed, I was constantly jostled, and conversation and laughter rang. Luckily the soldiers were there to help us haggle; a major part of the market life.

A very short hour later we reboarded the bus and headed back to our hotel to do our own preparations for Shabbat. We showered and dressed up, then walked back to the old city. This time we left all technology in the hotel, or tucked discreetly into our pockets, to respect the orthodox tradition. After carrying my camera around constantly, of course not something I regret for an instant, it was nice to simply live in the moment for a while. Getting to the Wailing Wall took almost an hour, and it astounded me how much it had changed since we had been there during the day. On the men’s side, I can’t speak for the women’s, there was singing and dancing. Overall it was an incredibly joyous affair. First going in the guys stayed together, I think we were all slightly intimidated by the commotion. Before long we were swinging around in circles singing songs in Hebrew to which we didn’t know the words. I distinctly remember seeing an old man, easily in his seventies if not eighties, crouching over to join a circle with two young boys, laughing and smiling as he lead them through the circle. While the Orthodox Jews we saw seemed very serious during the day, we saw them laughing and singing and relaxing at the wall. It was an eye opening moment for me, and I think many others.

We walked back through the old city, where almost every doorway was lit up with a menorah and shabbat candles. It gave the city the glow of life. Back at the hotel we lit our own candles before eating dinner and doing some group activities.